2.2.10 Conclusion: the ‘just government strand’ in the Bible

Back to 2.2.9

Unit 2 Contents

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We have looked at a lot of biblical material in this first part of Unit 2, including some passages that need careful study if we are going interpret them properly.  However, we have paid attention to only a small amount of what is in Christian Bible as a whole.  This means that, from studying what I’ve called the ‘just government strand’, we have certainly not gained a complete picture of what is significant for Catholic Social Teaching in Scripture.

In introducing this part of this module (2.2.1), I noted that the twin CST module, ‘Living Life to the Full’, introduces a second important strand that also runs all the way through the Bible, the ‘prophetic strand’.  The identification of these two strands is just one way of making accessible what is in Scripture.  Yet it is highly important that we don’t take just part of what is in the Bible as though it is the whole.

Nevertheless, because we have looked at a theme that runs through the whole Bible, you should have gained a sense of biblical history, and especially of the political history that is, in fact, very prominent in Scripture.  From at least the exodus to the New Testament texts about Roman authority, we can identify the story of how God’s people, the Israelites and the early Christians, related to government, whether their own or that of other powers.

We have done this by addressing three questions, in turn, to the biblical material.  Here are those questions, with brief summaries of the answers we have discovered.

First, in 2.2.3 to 2.2.6 we asked: what views do we find in the Bible of what government should do?

The answer to this can be seen as summed up in the first few verses of the portrait of an ideal Israelite king in Psalm 72:

1.  O God, give your judgment to the king;

            your justice to the king’s son;

2.  That he may govern your people with justice,

            your oppressed with right judgment,

3.  That the mountains may yield shalom for the people,

            and the hills great abundance,

4.  That he may defend the oppressed among the people,

save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor.1

Those with political power are to use it to bring justice, especially for those who are oppressed, poor or victims of violence (vv. 2, 4, 12-14).  In ancient Israel, one of the main things this meant in practice was to ensure that the ruler practises just judgment in court, and that people suffering in those ways can come readily to court to seek justice.  Only if this is done will there be shalom (v. 3) – welfare, wellbeing, true prosperity or, in perhaps the best translation of this Hebrew word, the common good.  In other words, justice for the oppressed and poor is a prerequisite of the common good.

In the New Testament we find, astonishingly in the context of Judaism and early Christianity, affirmation that Roman imperial rule could be seen as under Israel’s God, and as having authority from God.  Jesus recognised that Caesar had a place under God.  St Paul even called Roman power “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4, NRSV).

Given this, the responsibilities of Israel’s rulers according to the Old Testament can be seen as extended in the New Testament to other rulers.  Psalm 72’s picture of an ideal king gives a model for all political rulers.

Second, in 2.2.7 we asked: what does the Bible have to say about why people should accept government’s claim to authority at all?

We came to an answer to this through study of St Paul’s letter to the Romans.  In the early Christians’ profession that Jesus is Christ and Lord, they were proclaiming that his authority is supreme – above, therefore, the Roman Emperor’s.  Beyond this, Romans 8 and 12 give a vivid description of how those who are ‘in Christ’ are supposed to live together, ‘life by the Spirit’, which makes what worldly governments do pale into insignificance.  Under Christ’s authority, the community of his followers is to live in a way that makes worldly structures of law and power superfluous.

But it is against this background that St Paul affirms that Christians should recognize and be subject to “the governing authorities” because these have their authority from God (Rom. 13:1, NRSV).  This is the fundamental reason why the Christians should accept it.  St Peter makes basically the same point.

In this context, we can understand Paul’s statement quoted above, that government is “God’s servant for your good”.  Of course, recognition that political authority comes from God gives no reason at all for seeing it as unlimited or for abusing it in any way.  On the contrary, it should be used only for the purpose God intends for it – which is justice, understood in the way Psalm 72 presents it.

Third, in 2.2.8 and 2.2.9, we asked: what insights can we gain from the Bible about how government should be constituted?

To the issue of whether government should be monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, Christianity added a new element, or even a new dimension.  It introduced a contrast between the Christian community and earthly government – the contrast we now refer to as between Church and state.   The Church insists that, because it professes Christ’s supreme authority, earthly government has to take this higher authority into account and may not do whatever it wants with the Church.  We shall return to this issue of Church and state later in the module.

Beyond this, the Bible conveys, overall, great scepticism about monarchy, even though the Hebrew Scriptures make clear that monarchy can be acceptable to God.  Therefore, while the Bible doesn’t justify outright rejection of any particular form of government, it can be interpreted as favouring distribution of power among a larger number of people than just one monarch – whether the ‘judges’ or, after the coming of Jesus, all who are anointed with the Spirit of the Messiah.  This point suggests there are seeds of democracy in Scripture, and we shall examine this in Unit 4.

In order to conclude your study of Scripture as a source for CST, you are asked to do two short reading from the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  You have already read sections of this in Unit 1.

You can see these two readings as a way of placing all we have looked at in this unit so far in the context of the whole of the Bible, as interpreted in this major text in current CST.

The first reading is the first part of Chapter 1 of the Compendium, which has the heading ‘God’s Plan of Love for Humanity’.  A great deal on these pages will be familiar from what you have looked at in this unit.   After an initial paragraph on human religious experience in general, this reading basically runs through the narrative of the Bible – from the exodus all the way to the Gospels and the letters in the New Testament.

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Reading (6pp)

 

Compendium, ##20-33 (Chap 1, parts I and II)

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The second reading is from the start of the Compendium’s chapter on ‘The Political Community’.  It outlines some of the same themes we have looked at when identifying ‘the just government strand’ in Scripture.  I quoted earlier (2.2.6) from its brief statement about Jesus’ answer on paying tax to Caesar.

This reading also mentions several texts in the New Testament to do with political life that we have not looked at in this unit.  Therefore this reading gives both a reminder of what you already have studied and an opportunity to extend your knowledge of biblical texts relevant to what will come up in later units.

As you read this, it could be a useful exercise to make a note of all the things mentioned that you are aware of through your study of this unit – and of those that are new to you.

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Reading (4pp)

 

Compendium, ##377-383 (Chap 8, part I)

 

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Reflection

From your biblical study in this unit, how much more would you say you now know about what is in the Christian Bible than you knew before?

Have the three questions in terms of which we have done this study (What? When? How?) helped to give coherence and clarity to what you have learned?

To do this reflection, you might like to review the contents of this part of the unit: 2.2.

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End of 2.2 THE ‘JUST GOVERNMENT STRAND’ IN THE BIBLE

Go to 2.3 THE CHURCH’S SOCIAL TEACHING 100-1740 CE

Module B outline

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  1. This is the NAB translation with ‘their bounty’ in v. 3 replaced by the original Hebrew, shalom

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